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What's The Matter With a False Arrest?: The Supreme Court Considers the Statute of Limitations Defense


Wednesday, Nov. 01, 2006

On November 6, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Wallace v. City of Chicago. The case addresses the question of precisely when a plaintiff may no longer bring a lawsuit against the police for arresting him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The plaintiff in the case was convicted of murder on the basis of evidence obtained as a result of an illegal arrest. In this column, I will explore the purpose of the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable arrests and consider how that purpose might bear on the interpretation of the statute of limitations.

The Facts of the Case

Andre Wallace was arrested in 1994 for the murder of a man named John Handy. The police arrested the then-fifteen-year-old Wallace without "probable cause" - the level of evidence-based suspicion that the Constitution requires as a prerequisite to a lawful arrest. In other words, the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they took Andre Wallace into custody. Shortly after his arrest, Wallace was interrogated, and he made an incriminating statement.

Prior to trial, Wallace moved to "suppress" his incriminating statement - that is, to prevent its introduction in court - on the ground that it was the fruit of an unconstitutional arrest. Under the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule, prosecutors may not offer evidence at trial to prove a defendant's guilt if police obtained that evidence by violating the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights.

The trial judge denied the suppression motion and presided over Wallace's "bench" trial (a trial at which the judge determines the facts, in the way that a jury ordinarily does). The prosecution introduced the challenged incriminating statement, and the judge found Wallace guilty of first-degree murder.

Four years later, in 1998, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Wallace's conviction, finding in a series of appeals that the detectives who arrested him had lacked probable cause and that his incriminating response to the subsequent interrogation represented the fruit of an unlawful arrest.

The appellate court accordingly remanded the case for a new trial (at which the prosecutor could not offer the incriminating statement). After an additional four years had passed, in 2002, the prosecutor decided to drop the case altogether, and Andre Wallace was released from prison.

The Legal Question

A year after his release, in April 2003, Wallace brought a lawsuit under the federal statute, 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, which allows suits for money damages on the basis of federal rights violations, against both the city of Chicago and the specific detectives who arrested him.

The federal court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds. Though Wallace had sued under both state and federal law, the only question currently before the Supreme Court concerns the federal cause of action.

The statute of limitations, as I explored at greater length in another column, provides a complete defense to a civil or criminal action. It concerns the timing rather than the merits of a plaintiff's (or prosecutor's) claims. In the case of Wallace's particular type of claim, the statute of limitations was two years - which means that the plaintiff who wishes to sue a state actor for an unlawful arrest in the state of Illinois must file her complaint within two years.

This may sound simple, but the tricky part is the question presented by Wallace v. Chicago: within two years of what must the plaintiff file suit? Andre Wallace brought his action a year after the prosecutor decided not to prosecute him. According to Wallace, the clock should have started running when he was released from prison. If Wallace is correct, then his suit should go forward, because he filed his complaint within the two-year window.

The problem for Wallace, however, is that one could, instead, start the clock at the moment of his unlawful arrest (which occurred in 1994) - when the police committed the constitutional harm in question. Alternatively, one could start the clock running at the moment of the Illinois appellate court's ruling concluding that the arrest was illegal and that the evidence presented at trial was the direct product of that illegality (and the latter finding occurred in 1998) - the point at which Wallace would no longer have to contend with a finding by the trial judge that the police had done nothing wrong and consequential.

The federal court of appeals in this case took the position that the arrest is the critical moment, because that is when the injury took place. Under either one of these two approaches, though, Wallace loses. He filed his suit either five or nine years too late.

The Purpose of the Right Against Unreasonable Arrests

To determine which of the various time-frames works best, it might be helpful to ask a deeper question about the underlying harm at issue: What is wrong with an unlawful arrest? Put differently, we ask: Why should we prohibit police from arresting people without probable cause?

One simple answer is that the prohibition enshrined in the Fourth Amendment protects innocent people from the loss of their liberty. By requiring police to accumulate some evidence implicating a suspect before arresting him, the Fourth Amendment sets out to minimize the number of innocent people who find themselves incarcerated.

The probable cause standard is not perfect, of course. Police will sometimes have probable cause against people who turn out not to have committed any crime. By the same token, many guilty people will fall beneath the probable cause radar and thus avoid the arrest and punishment that they deserve.

The imprecision of probable cause results in two distinct groups of people who might have a meritorious complaint about an unlawful arrest: those who in fact committed a crime, and those who did not. The first group of people represents the cost of probable cause: When we demand evidentiary support for an arrest, some guilty people will avoid the apprehension that they richly deserve. The second group of people - the innocent group - represents the payoff, the reason we limit arrests in the way that we do: this group expects and deserves to be left alone, and the Fourth Amendment aims to protect and guard that expectation.

Whether a particular suspect falls into the first or second group does not alter the culpability of the police officers who arrest him without probable cause. Either way, the police have engaged in misconduct that we hope to deter in the future.

Exclusion of evidence is all about deterring the police. It is not meant to compensate defendants. In fact, under the Court's Fourth Amendment precedents, defendants have no constitutional entitlement to the suppression of illegally-procured evidence. The fact that a suspect is actually guilty ought therefore to have no bearing on how a judge rules on a motion to suppress. Even if the suspect's guilt is, in retrospect, as plain as day to the judge, her focus should be on the conduct of the police, not on the guilt of the suspect. If an unlawful arrest leads directly to incriminating statements or physical evidence, the rule therefore requires their suppression, so that police in the future will not be motivated to arrest people in the absence of probable cause.

In the context of a lawsuit for compensation, however, a plaintiff's individual entitlement might matter, and the difference between a guilty plaintiff and an innocent one should perhaps affect the outcome of the case before the Supreme Court.

Innocence and Injury

How might any of this bear on a question as non-substantive as the statute of limitations? We know that victims of horrific crimes are often left with no remedy and no retribution because of the operation of statutes of limitations. By the same token, those with meritless claims are permitted to file a complaint when they do so within the statutory window of opportunity. Nonetheless, to determine when a statute of limitations begins to run, we must ask when the injury (and the information necessary to illuminate that injury) came to light. It is in answering this question that innocence might have a role to play.

Andre Wallace, it appears, was innocent of the murder for which he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison. With the suppression of the confession obtained after the interrogation of a fifteen-year-old arrested without probable cause, it seems that the prosecutor was unable to find enough evidence to justify going forward with a murder prosecution.

In 1994, Wallace did know, of course, that he had been arrested, though he promptly learned that the trial judge considered that arrest legal. In 1998, Wallace learned - through the reversal of his conviction - that his arrest was not supported by probable cause and was therefore unconstitutional. Had Wallace been guilty, this would surely have been enough information to permit him to bring any lawsuit he intended to bring.

In Wallace's case, however, he believed that the prosecutor would re-prosecute him on the basis of other evidence. Indeed, it was the shared nature of this expectation that allowed him to languish in prison for four additional years, even though a court had already reversed his conviction.

It was only when the prosecutor decided, in 2002, not to prosecute Wallace - a decision that led to his release from prison - that it became clear that the State did not appear to have a case against the man who had been arrested and who had spent eight years of his life behind bars. In other words, it was his release in 2002 that brought into sharp focus what had happened to Andre Wallace: He had been arrested without probable cause, after which (and because of which) he had been convicted and forced to spend eight years in prison, when he was suddenly released.

Only upon release, then, did Wallace have the materials to demonstrate the depth of the injustice done to him. Not coincidentally, as well, it was only at that point that it became likely that his case would arouse a factfinder's sympathy and outrage.

In practical terms, it will not always be possible to prove (or even to demonstrate a likelihood) that the victim of an unlawful arrest was, in fact, innocent of any crime. And for the most part, no such showing will be necessary, because the police will have violated the Fourth Amendment regardless and will be required to pay, as long as the plaintiff brings his suit within the limitations period following the arrest (or perhaps following the finding that the arrest was unlawful).

In cases in which a person is found guilty and has actually gone to prison for the crime, however, it will be rare that he has the audacity to go into a courtroom and argue - while serving time for a crime that he really did commit - that he should receive money for the fact that police lacked probable cause for his initial arrest. This is particularly so if, after obtaining a reversal on appeal, the prosecutor proceeds to prove him guilty again. In such cases, it is likely that the statute of limitations will come and go, and the potential plaintiff will remain silent.

In a case like Andre Wallace's - in which an innocent person is falsely arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, only to learn in a moment eight years later that there really is nothing that points to his guilt - we rightly react by thinking, "What a miscarriage of justice; he should be compensated!" And it is precisely in such cases that the statute of limitations should be understood to recognize the significance of that moment, and to begin running only then.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her other columns may be found in the archive of her work on this site.

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